Peace Civil Interventions: The Nonviolent Peaceforce from a Historical Perspective


Marco Oberosler (Submitted by Antonino Drago) – TRANSCEND Media Service

During the twentieth century a considerable number of civilian interventions has taken place in armed conflicts. Gandhi himself envisioned a Shanti Sena (literally Peace Army). His suggestion was later put into practice in India thanks to Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan; in Western countries it has taken the shape of a recurrent vision that promoted recurrent actions within the Peace Movement.

The challenge accepted by the Peace Movement during the Eighties and the Nineties was a great one. The Movement wanted to face up to the political issue of worldwide war in order to solve and overcome it through direct peaceful interventions (taking place during the two main conflicts of the Nineties: Yugoslavia and Palestine/Israel). The decade-long international debate that followed tried to find the best ways to create a world organization that could effectively work for the resolution of armed conflicts. In this phase nonviolent civil intervention took an ambitious step forward, firstly with the Peace Brigades International and later with the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

These paragraphs are a summary of my master thesis. I graduated in “Science for Peace: development cooperation, mediation and transformation of conflicts” at the University of Pisa under the supervision of professor Antonino Drago. In the study I try to give an overview of nonviolent civil interventions and an evaluation of the activities that Nonviolent Peaceforce has carried out so far.

We are still at the beginning of scientific studies in the field of nonviolent civil interventions; currently literature does not provide a shared definition for this kind of actions. In my thesis I mainly use the expressions peace civil intervention, nonviolent civil intervention and nonviolent people’s intervention to refer to non-state, non-military and non-coercitive operations, managed by NGOs which have the political aim to change from below the violence-generating social structures. The thesis is divided in three chapters.

In the first chapter I try to give a fact-based evaluation of peace civil interventions up to when a stable and world-oriented nonviolent civil force was created. I briefly summarize the historical progression of small scale and large scale civil peace interventions, from the 1930’s up to the constitution of the Nonviolent Peaceforce in 2002. The project to create a stable civil peace force designed to operate in conflict situations took advantage from the experience of the Shanti Sena in India. Since this experience has been numerically stronger and longer-lasting than nonviolent peace interventions that followed, I offer here a comprehensive overview of the studies about Shanti Sena.

In the second chapter I present a summary of the ideas and theories expressed in the Nonviolent Peaceforce Feasibility Study[i] written for the Nonviolent Peaceforce itself before being operational in the field. Nonviolent Peaceforce’s project had forecasted an increasing number of participants in order to reach a size of thousands of members. In the field of civilian nonviolent intervention, a comparable size was only reached by the indian Shanti Sena. This is the basis set by Nonviolent Peaceforce to become an international political actor with a specific program to limitate and oppose wars.

Due to the lack of previous scientific studies about civil peace interventions, this document is particularly significant because it represents the first attempt, lead by an international group of researchers and activists, to fill this theoretical gap.

The Nonviolent Peaceforce Feasibility Study states the will to reach a professional capacity to intervene on a world scale. The Feasibility Study examines actions taken by NGOs, GOs and IGOs already operative in war and post-war settings, in order to learn useful lessons and good practices to apply in his forthcoming work.

Ten years have passed since the publication of the Feasibility Study, giving us the chance to assess the results achieved by the organization during its first eight years of activities. The conclusion of my thesis presents this assessment, inserted in the broader framework of the peace policy of both States and IGOs.

In the third chapter, considering the challenges of creating a methodology to evaluate the peace civil interventions from a political and social point of view, I assess the (dis)continuity between the Shanti Sena and the Nonviolent Peaceforce. In order to do that I create a number of analytical grids, whose application allows me to systematically compare these two experiences.

Furthermore I propose another set of parameters (which also includes Peace Brigades International) that, at least in my intention, should become a format to study the peace civil intervention in general.

Finally, I try to see the (dis)continuity between four highly influential theories of the peace civil intervention. I specifically refer to the peace civil intervention models proposed by Alberto L’Abate, Jean Marie Muller, Antonino Drago and Christine Schweitzer. I also assess how much these models are oriented in the same direction.

The historical review, carried out in the first chapter, on international peace civil interventions in the past, shows that they have a predominantly Western (Europe and North America) background. With the exception of Cyprus Resettlement Project and few other collaborations between the Shanti Sena and the veterans of the World Peace Brigade, people from non-western countries seldom participated in these activities.

The choice made by Peace Movement’s NGOs to focus on nonviolent activities outside their own country makes their task even harder. They operate in little-known contexts, competing with actors already legitimated by the States to intervene in violent conflicts, such as military of national armies and IGOs. Furthermore, there is the problem to support financially and logistically an action anywhere in the world.

The first chapter also shows that the political aim to change from below the violence-generating social structures is not always predominant, as it is in the Nonviolent Peaceforce case. Many peace civil intervention have had just a symbolic  meaning.

The theoretical overview offered through the Nonviolent Peaceforce Feasibility Study shows a quite clear choice for a pragmatic nonviolent approach. The civilian personnel is considered functionally better than the military personnel in the accomplishment of several tasks, such as the distribution of humanitarian aid, the monitoring of violence, the disarmament, the demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, etc. Apparently, the key factor is the ownership of a firearm, that alternatively puts the soldier in a dominant or subdued position while doing his work.

The preconditions for a successful civil nonviolent intervention are identified through the analysis of the experiences of peace teams, civil peace services, aid and development organizations, larger scale governmental civilian missions and military-based interventions led by the UN. Other issues are also addressed, such as the field relationships among the personnel, between the latter and the sending organization and finally between the various organizations present in the field. The analysis deals also with personnel recruitment and training.

The comparison between the Shanti Sena and the Nonviolent Peaceforce shows the substantial difference between the ideological basis of the two organizations. Shanti Sena is separated, when not opposed, from institutional structures and devoted to a precise social-constructive programme. Nonviolent Peaceforce is politically bound to the UN and State perspective and hasn’t yet elaborated a strategy to support the qualitative leap for the peace civil intervention it has planned. No major armed conflict has been addressed so far.

The fact that the Shanti Sena did not take action in the international context (except the Cyprus Resettlement Project), but rather concentrated its efforts within Indian borders (through constructive work in rural areas and peacemaking and interpositionary activities during communal riots between hindus and muslims) makes the comparison with the Nonviolent Peaceforce very difficult. The Nonviolent Peaceforce intervenes exclusively at international level.

The comparison between the theories of peace civil interventions by L’Abate, Muller, Drago and Schweitzer shows that there is no agreement about the political aims and the organizational form which the peace civil intervention should take (for instance, it has to be noticed that every author uses a different expression to define this kind of intervention). Nor there is a common position about either the sensitive issues of the collaboration with the military power, or about the necessity to opt for a third-party role in the conflict.

Using the parameters grid I try to globally assess the experience of the Nonviolent Peaceforce. I offer the following considerations:

Internal objectives

l  There has been a qualitative leap in the political objectives that the Peace Movement decided to reach (to face wars directly) and in the preventive planning of its interventions (a study conducted at academic level);

l  The financial objective (5 mln $/operation) has not been reached;

l  The planned size has not been reached (although the number of the activists of Nonviolent Peaceforce is  higher than the average of the INGOs working in this field);

l  There has been a lack of ability to choose the best strategy (in almost ten years of activities the Nonviolent Peaceforce faced only minor conflicts avoiding to tackle with the main conflict in the international politics: Israel-Palestine);

l  Nonviolent Peaceforce did not manage to unify and/or give a common direction to the peace civil intervention organizations at global level;

l  Nonviolent Peaceforce did not manage to mobilize a political solidarity movement which backs the peace civil interventions in foreign countries  by making pressure on the governments and on the public opinion of the main Western countries;

l  The time span of activity for the Peace Brigades International (1982- 2010) and the Nonviolent Peaceforce (2002 – 2010) has created some political novelties but did not change the spontaneous political activism.

External objectives

l  Nonviolent Peaceforce has been awarded with the consultative status at the ECOSOC. This does not differentiate much the Nonviolent Peaceforce from many other organizations;

l  Nonviolent Peaceforce has accessed funding from many States (seven); this is a significant change,  although it was not one of the initial objectives of the organization;

l  There are no links with universities, academic courses or classes (the class on peace civil intervention at Pisa University seems to be the only one of its kind);

l  Nonviolent Peaceforce did not actively promote parliamentary initiatives, adhering to its initial non-governmental character;

l  It has had a limited influence on similar organizations: the UN Volounteers, other voluntary organizations, technical civil corps, white helmets, ONU and OSCE peacekeeping and peacebuilding forces.

All things considered, in the external objectives we do not find relevant positive results. In practice, Nonviolent Peaceforce has brought no significant change in any major conflict at global level. But taking into account how difficult present times are for the peace movement, NP has the indisputable merit of representing a slight advancing (or to be more optimistic, a slow growth) in a frozen political framework. It has also kept the attention focused on civilian nonviolent intervention.

My academic interest for peace-related topics such as nonviolent peace interventions is very much linked with the personal engagement in several NGOs, especially in the balkan area. From January 2006 until June 2007 I worked as Delegate of the Local Democracy Agency of Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina, coordinating all the activities of this institution and maintaining the relationships with local and international partners.


[i] The document is freely downloadable at the following internet address:


The research was managed by Christine Schweitzer, social anthropologist. She worked as Programme Director in the Nonviolent Peaceforce and is a member of the German Institute for Peace Work and Non-Violent Conflict Transformation ( During the Nineties Christine Schweitzer was  co-founder and activist of the International Balkan Peace Team, one of the most important peace civil intervention  in former-Yugoslavia.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Jul 2010.

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